The head of the Prospect trade union, which represents public sector professionals inclusing civil servants, has accused the government of failing to ensure workplaces will be safe to return to after the coronavirus lockdown, after it emerged health and safety inspections are to be carried out remotely.
Union general secretary Mike Clancy said it "increasingly looks like the government wishes to get people back to work while appearing to take their safety seriously but without actually doing anything about it".
Prime minister Boris Johnson said last week that the Health and Safety Executive would be responsible for ensuring businesses "look after their workers and are Covid-secure and Covid-compliant".
He told MPs that HSE would enforce the rules and that "we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe".
However, HSE has since said it is not carrying out physical spot checks at the moment to protect its own staff.
“In line with government guidance to cease all but essential work that cannot be done outside of the home, minimising contact between individuals, HSE has paused all proactive inspections at this time to reduce any risk posed to our own staff and to members of the public," the watchdog told the i newspaper.
In a second statement, it added: “The PM was right to talk about spot checks as something that’s being looked at, moving forward.
“It is true that there was a pause during our active inspections during the lockdown, but we’ve already stated that plans to enhance our regulatory approach further to the new [Department for] Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy guidance and the additional funding are being developed.”
Responding to the statements, Clancy said: “Last week the government said that HSE would be conducting spot checks on businesses before they reopen for business. It seems that it neglected to check if HSE would actually be able to visit businesses while keeping its own workers safe.
“Prospect members in HSE, who have been working throughout this crisis, have indicated that initially the majority of spot checks will be done via telephone rather than visit which raises questions as to their effectiveness.
“Ten years of cuts to HSE have left it in the position that it doesn’t have enough inspectors to effectively police health and safety standards across the entire economy. The additional funding announced last week will be largely spent on call centres and will have no impact on the numbers of qualified inspectors."
Prospect was one of three trade unions, along with the the FDA and PCS, that wrote to HSE last month calling on it to take action against employers that were not following government guidance at the time that only essential workers who could not work from home should be coming into work.
The three unions urged HSE managers to “fulfil their duty as the independent regulator in charge of enforcing health and safety at work”.
They said they were concerned "not only by the apparent inaction but also by the potential reputational damage this will cause to HSE as an independent regulator in the longer term”.